Deep Space Nine: s02e16 – “Shadowplay”

Old and young

I have a routine at the moment whereby I watch my weekly episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on Tuesday morning, bright and early, then write my blog on it immediately it is over. I don’t pre-prepare. I come as fresh to it as if it were a new broadcast, and only afterwards do I check the episode on-line, to confirm guest star’s names, and the spellings of their characters.

It’s a process that’s vulnerable to whatever mood I might be in: today I was feeling slightly down, inclined to see the weekly episode as a task. Season 2 has been a step up on season 1, but at this stage it’s still very much a series of disconnected episodes, with little or nothing to do with each other. The other series’ I’m currently working through are iZombie and Person of Interest, which are both very much creations of today in which the weekly story is a part of an ongoing arc of development.

Deep Space Nine is both physically and televisually a throwback. I know that more of an overarching story will eventually develop – this week’s episode mentions the Dominion for the third time so I know that before the season is out, they will come out of the shadows, and I’m looking forward to it – but until then the individual stories are all we’ve got and they stand and fall solely on their merits.

And ‘Shadowplay’, which originally threatened to be a curiosity in pairing the unlikely mission team of Jardzia Dax and Odo, turned out to be an unexpectedly sweet episode with a deeply emotional feel that convinced by its lightness of touch and left me near to tears in its denouement.

Our unlikely pair were in the Gamma Quadrant again (much more of this and they’re going to need stop/go lights in that Wormhole) investigating the source of an unusual particle field. At least, that was Dax’s task: Odo was along for the handily nebulous purpose of trying to find more about his background.

The field turns out to be omicron particles emanating from a single reactor in a small valley on an otherwise empty planet. The field – which interferes with Starfleet detectors etc. – is in the centre of a small, adobe-dwelling-like village with a small community dressing in primarily white robes and headgear. Dax and Odo are ‘captured’ by the Protector, Colyus, a genial performance by the semi-legendary Kenneth Mars.

They’re suspected of being behind a series of disappearances – 22 in total – of villagers, the most recent being a woman who is daughter to the oldest occupant, Rurigan and mother to the youngest, Taya (child actor Noley Thornton in one of the last roles of her brief career). Dax and Odo volunteer to investigate, despite Rurigan’s insistence – and seeming indifference – that they will find nothing.

Clued in by the fact that none of the villagers have ever left the valley, nor even thought to do so, Dax and Odo explore the boundary and discover the truth about the community: that all of it, buildings included, is a holographic projection by the reactor. And that the reactor is breaking down: the missing villagers have been ‘lost’ by it.

The villagers take surprisingly well to the discovery that they are not conventionally real and agree to risk being switched off, perhaps permanently, to enable Dax to try to repair the reactor. Unsurprisingly, when the field is switched off, one villager remains: Rurigan, the elder, the only one who is real.

To this point, the episode had been little more than a neat little SF story, of no great weight, moment , to be frank, great originality. It began, in the open, with Odo’s dismissal of human romance, which was itself neatly counterpointed in the understory, to which I’ll get in a moment. But during the episode, Odo began to develop a genuine relationship with, and affection for little Taya who, like him, had lost her parents.

Now, with the village shut down, Rurigan,  who had already admitted to be approaching death, wanted the machine to be left. He was its creator, sole survivor of a Dominion takeover of Yedera Prime, who’d fled to an abandoned planet thirty years ago and created a holographic reminder of his life. But it was none of it real.

But Odo argued otherwise. Holograms the villagers may have been, but they were real to themselves, and to Rurigan and, though this was wisely left unstated, to Odo himself. Taya was only ten years old: she had been born within the hologram. And she was Rurigan’s granddaughter, and he loved her. They were alive, whether it be in a sense we understood or not, and they deserved to live.

And Rurigan, asking only that Dax and Odo should not reveal that he’s different to the villagers, agreed to the hologram being switched on. Everyone was back: Colyus, Taya, the missing villagers. Aware that they were ‘just’ holograms, but accepting and unconcerned, the villagers would live on. Colyus invited their saviours to visit whenever they were passing. Odo said a truly human goodbye to his little friend, shapeshifting into a spinning top before beaming up. The implication was that Rurigan’s last months would be happy ones, inside an illusion that had become real to him, and real to us as well.

If I were in charge of Deep Space Nine, and it were being made now, I would have a note stapled to my diary that, in not later than season 4, Odo would return to this isolated valley,and bring us further news of this odd village. I don’t suppose that ever happened.

I mentioned above the understory. Wisely recognising that there wasn’t quite enough in the main story to fill an entire episode, the producers reverted to the parallel stories structure that’s been resting for the past few weeks. Meanwhile, back at the station…

There were two mini-stories going on, both pretty slight. Jake Sisko starts an apprenticeship in Engineering with the Chief that his Dad says will look good on his resume when he applies to Starfleet Academy. But Jake doesn’t want to go into Starfleet: that’s his Dad’s life, and he wants – needs – his own. He confesses it to O’Brien, who encourages him to tell the Commander, who’s a pretty understanding guy and, you know what? He does understand, straight up.

The other involved Major Kira, who’s got her eye on Quark and isn’t going to let him get away with his latest crooked scheme whilst Odo’s off-station. That is, until Vedik Barielarrives unexpectedly, to give a lecture (the invitation for which has Quark behind it). You see, the tall, handsome Vedik is hanging around the lovely Kira all the time making puppy-dog eyes like some lovesick teenager (this I know), to which she’s almost oblivious. Most of the time.

This ends up with some serious out-of-uniform snogging, which made me seriously jealous of Philip Anglim.

No, despite the minor steps towards larger stories that these brief episodes represented, they were not suited for inclusion in an episode which dealt with larger issues, and which brought these to the fore with impressive intensity at exactly the right moment. Kudos all round, and especially for the delicate underplaying of Kenneth Tobey as Rurigan. Tobey, a veteran of 50s SF films, was 76 when he played this part.



2 thoughts on “Deep Space Nine: s02e16 – “Shadowplay”

  1. There’s an episode in season three, that’s too similar to Shadowplay for me and is of about the same quality, nothing really standing out. And it’s even a bit similar in setup as the previous episode Paradise.(And I used to get that one confused with the next episode, Playing God, because of the title)
    Once this season gets past another few episodes during this mid-section and into the later season 2 episodes, the quality rises even more. And for me they don’t run together as bad.

  2. That’s good to hear. I’m not really enjoying this run of episodes all that much and, if this were unfolding in real time, there’s at least an even chance I would choose to drop the series as not worth it. It does need to improve from this point, though I know that it does.

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